Category Archives: palaeontology

Kuwoot yas.ein – A video about the discoveries at On-Your-Knees Cave, SE Alaska

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave.  Screenshot from video.

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave. Screenshot from video.

On July 4, 1996, paleontologist Tim Heaton was busy at his last day of fieldwork at On-Your-Knees Cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, Southeast Alaska (map).  At this and other caves Heaton had recovered a remarkable array of fauna from both before, during, and after the last glacial maximum, including a variety of black and brown bear bones.  Until this point, he had not found any human remains, but that changed with the discovery of a human mandible and the subsequent discoveries of other scattered, chewed remains.  In due course, an archaeological site was also found at the entrance to the cave, dating to about 10,300 calender years ago, the same as the human remains. Excavation at this site was led by E. James (Jim) Dixon, whose footsteps I often feel like I am stumbling along in. In one layer in the site, they actually found one of the missing teeth from the mandible, showing the extent to which the bones had been scattered, and, sinisterly, chewed, presumably by bears.  The most likely interpretation is that the site represents a bear hunting camp at the entrance to the cave, and that on at least one occasion, the bears got the upper hand.

Anyway, the remains of this young man have revealed important details of the life of early people on the Northwest Coast, and the study also exemplifies how strong relationships, respect, and adherence to protocol can allow for scientific and cultural priorities to unfold together. It’s therefore quite exciting to find a 30 minute video detailing the process of research at On-Your-Knees Cave: “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave“.

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Manis Mastodon: a 13,800 year old Archaeological Site on the Northwest Coast

CT slice through Mastodon rib exposing bone point profile. Source: Waters et al. 2011.

For a long time, the Manis Mastodon site near Sequim, Washington was the elephant in the room of the Northwest Coast early period.  The apparent bone point embedded in a mastodon rib was seemingly hard to explain by any non-cultural means, yet maddeningly short of definitive proof, and so was politely ignored. The point has always been a thorn in my side too, which is why I have posted on it three times, once over a year ago, and twice recently.

Maybe I am a bit obsessed with it because if I rise gently from my sofa in Blog World Headquarters, being careful not to spill fine single malt on my pyjamas, then through my window I can see Sequim in the extreme distance, seemingly mocking me.

So all the more cathartic that today, with the publication of a convincing re-analysis of the mastodon rib by Michael Waters et al. in the respected journal Science, we can say that the  site is, indeed, evidence of humans hunting Mastodon on the Northwest Coast 13,800 years ago.  That’s about eight hundred years pre-Clovis.  Like I said before: it’s real.  It’s old. It’s on the coast.  Wow.

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More on Manis Mastodon

Image from the Mammoth Trumpet. Source: CSFA. Click to enlarge somewhat.

While we wait patiently for the definitive word on the rumoured exciting new developments regarding the 14,000 year old, pre-Clovis Manis Mastodon site near Sequim, Washington, I thought it was worth a new post to pass on an article a regular reader of this blog brought to my attention.

The Center for the Study of the First Americans, the same organization who is now re-analysing Manis Mastodon, have for many years published a very informative newsletter they call the Mammoth Trumpet.  Some of the early issues are online, including one which has a 1987 report on the Manis site(PDF).  I had not seen this before (the whole archives are worth a post on their own) and the article has some interesting information, including the picture above.

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Intriguing rumours about the Manis Mastodon site

Screenshot of Manis news from the website of the Center for the Study of First Americans. Click to go to page.

[October 20 edit: Manis article now out in Science, my post here.]

Quite a while ago I posted about some of the frustrations I felt about the Manis Mastodon site, near Sequim on the Olympic peninsula.  This 1970s find of a Mastodon skeleton had one singularly enigmatic feature: there appeared to be the broken tip of a bone point embedded in one of its ribs.  As I wrote before: yank that sucker out! – so we can determine for sure if this is a human made artifact dating to the same age as the Mastodon – about 14,000 years ago.  Being well pre-Clovis and right near the coast, this find would be of profound importance to our archaeological understanding of the first arrival of people into the Americas.  Now, as you can read above, there is an intriguing hint that Manis has finally been re-examined, and found to be a legitimate Pleistocene archaeological site. It’s real.  Wow.

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Salmon species now knowable from vertebrae

Measurement of vertebral height. Source: Huber et al. 2011

Salmon are a crucial cultural keystone species across most of the Northwest,  of very high importance to many coastal and interior cultural groups for thousands of years.  Many archaeological sites are chock full of salmon bones, and the oldest of these are around 10,000 years old.  As a cultural story, the importance of salmon is obvious.  Increasingly though, the archaeological data are also invoked to tell the history of salmon themselves.  The very long-term view of the archaeological record provides  knowledge of their ranges, their relative abundance, their life histories, etc.  These data can then be harnessed as part of conservation and fisheries management of these threatened species of fish.

Each species offers different things to people: some run early, some late; some are more fatty, some leaner; some run in huge compact numbers, others tend to dribble by; some can be caught in large numbers in the open ocean, others can only be caught efficiently in streams.  There’s just one problem with using salmon bones in archaeology: until recently, you really couldn’t tell one species of salmon from another based only on their bones.

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Florida Mammoth Engraving is Real?

Vero Beach, Florida, mammoth engraving. Source: National Geographic.

I’ve been vaguely aware that in 2009 at Vero Beach (map) near Miami, a sensational find came to light of a bone with a mammoth engraved onto it.  So far there has not been a lot to say about it but now I read that Dennis Stanford at the Smithsonian has inspected it and found no reason to think it is not genuine (yes, that kind of double-negative convoluted opinion).

Anyway, the story is interesting in its own right and perhaps has some lessons for us on the NW Coast as well, which I’ll discuss at more length below.

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Heritage Dinosaurs?

Closeup of the skull and teeth of Vancouver Island's Puntledge River elasmosaur. Source:

Only occasionally does this space turn its eye to fossils, but there’s been quite a bit of press this last week about the perceived lack of protection of fossil sites in British Columbia, some of which are alleged to be ground up for “kitty litter” (archive, etc).  In that CBC report the Minister of Agriculture and Lands lists a whole variety of ways that fossil sites are, indeed, protected, in response to the general position of the paleontologists that there was no such legal protection. I believe this page summarizes the government’s position (which does indeed explicitly allow commercial exploitation in principle, though they are not currently taking kitty litter applications.  The page is a virtual museum of weasel words and contradictory information and frankly, makes almost no coherent sense).

Anyhow,  the most direct and obvious way that such sites are, in my opinion, already protected, or the way they could be: by the Heritage Conservation Act (HCA).

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